HC Deb 02 April 1962 vol 657 cc140-5
Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move, in page 4, line 14, after "appellate", to insert: including the jurisdiction to determine the amount of compensation payable for any compulsory acquisition of property in any of the relevant colonies. The intention of the Amendment is to bring within the jurisdiction of the courts which may be set up under the Clause the right to determine compensation on the compulsory acquisition of land. I propose the Amendment because the law of compulsory acquisition and the law of compensation, particularly, in the units of the little Eight is in a somewhat disastrous condition. We are dealing there with territories of a very small area and they are starved of land. If it is necessary, as, indeed, it must be necessary in developing these areas, to take land into public ownership for administration buildings, hospitals, schools, and the rest, we should be quite certain that we are being fair to the individual from whom the land is being taken.

In the past, our colonial administration has had a reputation for being fair in these cases. When we were developing British India it was a direction to the judges there that when they had found the value of the land to be taken for the benefit of the community as a whole they would then add 25 per cent. for the fact that it was being taken away compulsorily—a really fair deal. It is not enough, in these cases, to leave the question of compensation entirely to the discretion of the Government concerned. It is right to leave to the discretion of the Governments concerned the choice of what land should be taken for public purposes. In this country we make that the subject of public inquiry. There is no such law in the units of the little Eight. But when it comes to compensation, I suggest that that should be subject to the rule of law, as it is in this country where we have the Lands Tribunal with an appeal to the ordinary courts. Unless there is justice over this matter, any Government there will be building up trouble for themselves and possibly violence.

I should have thought that one of the most important acts of a Government when developing these small countries was to ensure there should be fair compensation for the property taken away for the good of the community. I am not raising this as a purely theoretical point. I ask the Committee to bear with me while I give an example which will show how chaotic the state of the law is in at least one of the Colonies of the little Eight in connection with compensation. The case that I shall cite shows Crichel Down paling into insignificance.

9.0 p.m.

The case started no less than six years ago, when in June, 1956, the Executive Council of Antigua resolved to acquire some land compulsorily. No notice whatever was given to the owner at that stage. In September, 1956, the Government entered on his land. The owner wrote a letter of protest which remained unanswered. He had, of course, no opportunity under the law there of having any public inquiry. The only answer he got to his protest was that the Executive Council by order in October, 1956, vested the land in the Crown.

That was all done under an Act of the Leeward Islands Federal Government—the Land Acquisition Act, 1944—and since the dispersal of the federal powers, action under that Act by one of the unit Governments was entirely invalid. It was ultra vires for the Antigua Government to take this land from a private individual under that Act. In October, 1958, two years after the deed had been done, the Land Acquisition Ordinance, 1958, validated all that had been done illegally over the past years under the 1944 Act.

The Government having white-washed themselves in that way, what happened to the owner whose land was taken? He had no land, no compensation and no communication from the Government until April, 1959, two and a half years after the property had been taken, when he was approached to enter into a voluntary agreement for the sale of the land although the land had already been vested in the Crown by an order of the Executive Council.

At that stage I took the matter up with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I received a reply which apparently roused the Antiguan Government to negotiate a little with the owner. The 1958 Ordinance, however, although validating the past illegal acts, had failed entirely to provide any system for assessing compensation, so that the unfortunate owner had no authority to which he could refer to assess the compensation for the land.

Eventually, in April, 1961, when nothing more had been done about it, I raised the matter in an Adjournment debate. I was told then that the Antiguan Government had offered the owner £3,000 for the land. I was informed that a letter to that effect had been written about six weeks before that debate. My inquiries since then lead me to make the allegation now that that letter was backdated. It was not received by the owner until after the Adjournment debate. I think that my hon. Friend was grossly misled by some authorities in Antigua to believe that that letter had already been delivered to the owner.

The owner was asking £10,000 for the land and the offer was £3,000. I do not know who was right—and I do not think that that matters. The point is that when the Government, having taken land, offers a price so grossly different from that which the owner thinks is the value, there should be a body to which appeal can be made for the assessment of compensation.

The Adjournment debate which I initiated was many months ago, and nothing has yet been done about settling the compensation for this owner—six and a half years after the land was taken over. The original owner from whom it was taken has died since, and now it is his daughter who is involved. There is no legal procedure whereby she can force a decision on this, and the Government of Antigua seem to be taking no steps to compensate her.

I quote this case as an example of the condition of the law of compensation in the unit Colonies of the little Eight. It is for that reason that I move my Amendment, to try to provide some authority within the law who could assess compensation in such cases. This case shows disgraceful conduct on the part of the Antiguan Government, and I cannot exonerate the Colonial Office from blame, because it seems to have sat by and allowed this to happen. I am trying to provide a proper process through the courts for compensation, thereby putting this situation right.

There must, of course, be compulsory acquisition in the development of Colonies of this sort, particularly in the little Eight, where development in social welfare, such as schools and hospitals, is so necessary, at the surest way to trouble and violence is a form of confiscation with no legal remedy. That is the position, certainly in Antigua and maybe in the others of the little Eight.

Mr. H. Fraser

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) raised this case in an Adjournment debate some months ago. I have great sympathy for the person involved, but this is a private case, so to speak, for Antigua. I must make one point clear. The 1958 Act to which my hon. Friend referred brought in a method of assessing the value of land to be compulsorily acquired, but through a drafting error, it did not cover land which had been acquired, as it proved, illegally before 1958.

There is only the one case—that of the Golden Grove Estate. This is not, therefore, a general condition applying to the West Indies, or even to Antigua. It is a peculiar mistake in drafting which applies to one case. The 1958 Act, whilst making arrangements for the valuation of compulsorily acquired land, did not go back to 1958, to this case, in which acquisition had proved to be invalid under previous legislation. This matter is, therefore, better handled by negotiation between the Government of Antigua and my hon. Friend's client, so to speak, Mrs. Fernandez. In February, I was informed that negotiations were proceeding.

I am informed by my legal advisers that this Amendment would not be appropriate at this stage. The point of Clause 4 is to retain two courts of appeal, in the Windwards and Leewards, and also to set up a new Supreme Court for the West Indies with a right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Therefore, at this stage I ask my hon. Friend to rely on me to try to sort out this difficulty in Antigua and to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. Graham Page

If my hon. Friend really will sort it out, but we have been waiting six-and-a-half years for it to be sorted out and that is a long time for an owner of land to be kept out of compensation for his property. My hon. Friend said that it was a drafting error in 1958 which caused the trouble. That is long enough ago for the matter to be corrected, and I urge that it should be corrected.

May I correct one thing he said? No doubt using the phrase in inverted commas, he referred to what he called my client. I assure him that this is not a client of mine professionally. If I had to give examples from professional experience, I could give many more which are just as serious. This is a case which I have pursued for many years in this House and it is about time that my hon. Friend dealt with it. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.